The Bounteous Biodiversity Resource In Ethiopia

By :Fassil Kebebew (Ph.D.)

Biodiversity, the resource that for many years has received scant attention, is in fact the most valuable natural resource that makes our Earth unique, insofar as we know in our solar system. It in an interacting complex of plants, animals and micro-organisms in the natural environment. It is the variety of living organisms on earth and exists at three levels (genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity). Biodiversity is the main source of raw materials used in agriculture, medicinal and industrial innovations. It forms the foundation of sustainable development. Living biodiversity has passed through the ages from one generation to the next, so that every biological resource alive today is, in a sense, a volume of living history, its chapters edited at different times through the ages by many forces, collectively called evolution.

The history of human efforts to manipulate genes to produce better biological products has been one long progression from observation to explanation, from art to science. The art of breeding or the art of producing new combinations of genes rests entirely on the variation/diversity, the genetic raw materials. Let us keep in mind that, as they say it, variation/diversity leads and the gene archeologist (geneticist), breeder and/or molecular biologist follows. The emerging molecular biology, next step on genetic engineering continuum that breeders have been working on for years, is increasingly becoming a useful weapon in the making of incredible products from the variation/diversity of biological resources. For example, researchers at Cornell University in the United States have recently engineered a potato that acts as a vaccine against cholera. Other research is aimed at turning plants into cancer fighters by increasing the beta carotene content.

The most prolific plant collector in history, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, clearly pioneered the whole subject of the genetic diversity of crop plants, and for the first time drew rough botanical boundaries around those areas in the world where the greatest concentrations of genetic diversity can be found. Ever since Vaviolv's expedition, the Ethiopian region has been recognized as an important centre of origin/domestication/diversity for several important economic plants viz., wheat, barley, rape seeds, safflower, coffee, sesame, noug (Guizotia abyssinica), etc. and other lesser appreciated but potentially useful plants such as anchote (Coccinia abyssinica), noya (Vernonia galemensis sub sp. galamensis), Oromo dinich (Plectranthus edulis), enset (Enset ventricosum), etc. Thus, Ethiopia is one of the 8 major Vavilovian centres of agro-biodiversity and endowed with domesticated animal and plant stocks, and microbial genetic resources. In botanical sense, three major centres of endemism are recognized in Ethiopia- the mountain forest and the afro-alpine zone, the semi-arid areas of the Somali-Massai Region, and the montane grasslands. At least 7000 vascular plant species occur in Ethiopia, 12% of which are believed to be endemic. About 1000 medicinal plants are also believed to be found in Ethiopia. At least 31 species of mammals, 29 species of birds, 6 species of reptiles, 33 species of amphibians and 3 species of fish are endemic taxa. Some 39 species of bovids, including the endemic mountain Nyala occur in Ethiopia. There is also one endemic species of baboon, the gelada. Further surveys continue to reveal the new population of endangered species, e.g., the recent confirmation of the Ethiopian Wolf in South Wello and North Shewa mountains. Ethiopia is also believed to have a wide diversity of microbial genetic heritage (viruses, bacteria, fungi, phytoplankton and zooplankton), but not yet well explored. Amongst the little known ones, so far, are those used in the natural fermentation process in foods and beverages, biological pest control, soil fertility, disease control, reduction of pre-and post-harvest losses, improving animal and human health (in areas of drought research and medicine), improving environmental safety, waste-reduction or bio-conversion into useful products and biodiversity conservation. Many of these bounteous resources of Ethiopia are endangered and of great conservation concern.

Paradoxically, however, the most awful story about Ethiopia is continuous famine and poverty. If famine and poverty are ever to be exiled from Ethiopia for sure, there are many potential solutions, but the eminent one above all, is the proper use of its biodiversity resource in its economic, social and environmental development programmes.